Painting is the lifelong medium through which NYC-born and Dallas-based artist JM Rizzi has historically sought. Rizzi hails from true New York stock — his father is from Brooklyn and his mother from Queens. Raised in the 80s, New York's cultural golden era, Rizzi told me there were, ironically, no other artists in his family. “We lived in Staten Island which was primarily working class, blue collar,” he said. “Not very many artists around at all.”
A search for escapism enveloped the latent creative into the artistic fold. “There was a comic book store in our neighborhood,” he recalled. “I was fascinated with the illustrations.” Rizzi would take small panels from the comics he loved and scale them up to full sheets of paper. His mother noticed this hobby and enrolled Rizzi in an oil painting class with adults around age eleven. There, he created his first original work as part of an assignment. His inaugural masterpiece was a clown.
Action shot in Rizzi's studio by Geoff Case
Rizzi increasingly came to discover his identity through art, painting sets for the theatre productions staged at his all-boys Catholic high school. Art was a reprieve. “It was that place that I could go to,” he told me, especially in those uncomfortable adolescent years. “Art and music were the safe places that I could always go to regardless of what was happening in my life.”
Still, there was tension between the identity he cherished and the identity he felt empowered to share with the public. For the most part, he kept his art to himself. Staten Island in the 80s was not hospitable to teenaged dudes pursuing such a path.
“Where I lived, creativity and being an artist was not really celebrated. You were a pansy,” he clarified. “People fighting every weekend, crazy stories like that. Graffiti then became that bridge. It had that machismo in it. It was creative, but also reckless.”
Rizzi had first been introduced to graffiti in the second grade, when iconic hip-hop film Beat Street was released to the public. “Everybody was coming up with tags and trying to learn how to backspin on a cardboard box or a roll of linoleum,” he remembered. However, it wasn’t until the 90s that graffiti truly re-entered his sphere of awareness. Around that time, Mayor Koch sought to stymie the city’s transit vandalism crisis by cracking down on painted trains — securing the train yards and prohibiting any locomotives run with even a drip of pigment on them. This removed the incentive for graffiti writers to hit the trains because no one would see their work, their tags.
As a result, Rizzi postulated, graffiti climbed above ground, back into everyday visibility. “It was everywhere around me on highways and parkways and overpasses,” he said. “I was a kid with whiplash going into the city.”
Where graffiti artists typically chase clout, hitting the most visible spot to assert dominance over other writers and the city itself, Rizzi noted that he was more interested in the art aspect. “I enjoyed the energy of it,” he said. “That's why a lot of it still comes out in my artwork, even though I would not consider myself a graffiti artist. It’s part of my foundation. The first time I saw a homemade marker, it was just so powerful — this black, thick, opaque ink.” Rizzi took the medium and made it his own.
JM Rizzi, 2020. Ink and collaged paper on canvas. 36 x 48 inches.
Rizzi’s artistic development came alongside sharp shifts in his personal life. Closing in on high school’s conclusion, he contended with mounting fears over his future. “There was this pressure to go to college,” he recalled. “I had no desire to do anything. Nothing interested me.” His greatest fear became the prospect of throwing four years away at a state school, rarely studying and mostly partying.
Perhaps due to the place that raised him, Rizzi pointed out a truth I wouldn’t have guessed on my own. “I didn't even know that there were art schools, that’s the thing,” he laughed. “I didn't know you could go to college for art.”
Fortunately, life has its way of providing the right clues at the right time. “There was an artist in Staten Island, a graffiti artist. I'll give him a shout out — his name's SKOPE TNI. He was what every other graffiti artist on Staten Island wanted to be.” Before social media, graffiti artists shared their work by taking pictures, printing them, and trading the paper cutouts. Rizzi studied his craft through ‘trading cards’ of SKOPE’s work, which he collected in droves.
Rizzi’s very traditional family hosted Sunday dinners, and one week a particular friend of his parents’ joined them. The friend, aware of Rizzi’s interest in art, offered to introduce him to another friend, who turned out to be SKOPE himself. “Lo and behold, the guy lived two blocks from me and I never even knew it,” Rizzi chuckled.
The two artists met and became fast friends. A student at NYC’s School of Visual Arts, SKOPE explained the possibility of art school to a searching Rizzi. “I did a tour of SVA, Pratt, and Parsons,” Rizzi said. “SVA was just covered with graffiti. There was a Keith Haring baby drawing In the back hallway. Everything was covered with either tags or drawings. The overhang pipes had tags on them, the sofas were tagged up. I was like, ‘this is where I need to be.’ It smelled like linseed oil and oil paint.”
Formal education in the arts exposed Rizzi to new techniques, new avenues for exploration available through painting. At SVA, he became enamored with abstract expressionism upon learning of artists like Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning. Rizzi had never known a non-figurative, frenetic style like this could even exist, let alone find acceptance.
“Sometimes all a person needs to know is ‘That thing is acceptable,’” he noted. “It tears down all sorts of walls.” Just like that, Rizzi found his real groove, the style he’s forged throughout his career. Elaborating upon the abstract expressionists’ canonical concepts, Rizzi asked “What if you took a piece of a tag, where a couple of lines intersect and there's a drip, and you blew that up six foot by eight foot to bring the viewer into that piece?”
Rizzi intuitively recognized the true ethos behind these two disparate art movements, culturally distant but principally linked. Abstract expressionism might look slapdash, but its perpetrators believed that their work immortalized an irreplaceable, utterly unique moment in time. According to Rizzi, the abstract expressionist artists asserted that “this artwork right here is an experience. This is an experience that happened and this is the documentation of it.” Graffiti, fast-paced and intended to leave the writer’s mark, seemed to aim at the same.
Now decades into his career, Rizzi boasts his own studio space, a trail of paint covering the globe, and a client roster populated by the likes of Proenza Schouler and Rockefeller Center.
“What is chasing me? What is this push to do it?” Rizzi asked himself aloud. “I still don't know what that is. But I think I've gotten to the point where I don't really question it. Each thing that I make is not an end goal. It's just another step in this process.”
“Living in New York and coming up through different art scenes and watching people chase other people’s success, I don't know that there is really an equation,” he decided. “It either happens or it doesn’t, but you have to do the work. You have to dedicate your entire life to it with the knowledge that there may not be glory.” Now he’s interested in art for art’s sake.
Photo by Matt Ttam
Rizzi admitted there are days when he wonders if he made the right choice by following his dreams. There are other days when the muse runs dry and he relies heavily on references, structures that have worked in the past. “When we doubt ourselves, we look outward to other things,” he noted. “Those other things give us a false sense of confidence.” Growing in his craft has required a measure of trust. “Everything that we need is already in us,” Rizzi told me. “We just need to figure out ways to let it out.”
For him, that method has been one of self-love, compassion, and combatting the invisible audience in his head. Rizzi recounted one time that his self-critical internal voice found its real-world manifestation while completing his first big commission — a lobby mural at the Pod Hotel on 51st Street in Manhattan.
“It was a very international scene,” he recalled. “There were people from different parts of the world coming up to me and talking. I was having these great, engaging conversations about art.” However, he continued, something turned for a moment at the end of one night on the job. “Some guy comes in. He was probably drunk, with a British accent. He just starts shouting, ‘You’re a fake. You're a phony. This isn’t art.’” It was perhaps Rizzi’s greatest nightmare come to life — he’d been found out. “For some reason,” Rizzi contemplated, “of the fifty people that I spoke to that praised me and were encouraging, in my mind, I'm like, ‘that guy gets it. He knows me, not these other people that were saying positive things.’ That guy just put a physical voice to my internal voice.”
Oftentimes, the best way to conquer a fear is to confront it. From this experience, Rizzi learned the immense power negativity can wield if its influence isn’t curtailed. He committed to fortifying his boundaries and protecting his positivity, his fragile but persistent creative impulse. Today, he has murals all over the world, including a recent installation at Raffles City in Shenzhen, China.
Rizzi's installation at Raffles City in Shenzhen, China
When people ask for advice, Rizzi offers this: “Don’t ask yourself what the point of it is, because you could stop. You can talk yourself out of doing just about anything. To make art over a long period of time, you have to put some of those voices away to the side and just persevere.”
Near the end of our conversation, Rizzi noted that he’d been a few minutes late to our call because he was looking at a new studio space four times the square footage of his craft’s current home. Rizzi didn't need the larger space for any upcoming museum show or ultra impressive client work. He wanted the bigger space to sate his ravenous desire to create, to perpetually chase the work which is an end in itself. For Rizzi, to create is to seek, and he never plans to stop.